A few days ago, I posted Part One of my “sonic slideshow” — a journey through my favorite records of 2013. That post included a bunch of Honorable Mentions, and then the albums that run from #25 through #11 on my list.
Now it’s time to explore the Top Ten. So put on your headphones, and keep an open mind. And when you’re ready, post your own list of favorites in the Comments, so we can continue exploring…
The Mavericks – In Time
I completely missed The Mavericks during the ’90s, their years of peak popularity. They finally caught my attention in 1999 with a great performance on a Gram Parsons tribute called Return of the Grievous Angel. I enjoyed their self-titled 2003 release, but then they parted ways and I forgot about them. Their reunion album, In Time, surprised me this year, and greatly surpassed my expectations.
What a huge record. There’s something about the supreme confidence you hear in each of these songs — the power of Raul Malo’s vocals, the fierce focus of the band, the relentless momentum, the strength of every element from the guitars to the horns — that keeps me coming back to it. Malo has often been compared to Roy Orbison, and you can easily imagine Roy singing lead on these songs, but no… Malo has a sonorous power all his own.
I couldn’t find a decent YouTube link for my favorite track, the unbelievably epic ballad “Call Me (When You Get to Heaven).” But you’ve gotta hear it. It’s a song that has me imagining a great film starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Antonio Banderas involving guns, blood, and the world’s most beautiful woman.
In fact, I couldn’t find YouTube links for album versions of the songs at all, so you’ll just have to settle for a live performance of the lead single.
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell – Love Has Come for You
I’ve loved Brickell since she first arrived with the New Bohemians in the early ’90s, although none of her solo records have made much of an impression on me. I’ve loved Steve Martin’s banjo playing since I became a huge fan of his standup comedy shows in the late ’80s. I never dreamed I’d hear these two working together.
It’s a match made in heaven.
They both sound as good as they ever have. Call it this year’s She & Him. And while the lyrics are often sad, and sometimes grim — hey, sometimes altogether heartbreaking — it’s such a spirit-lifting record. Like Steve used to say in his standup: “The banjo is such a happy instrument — you can’t play a sad song on the banjo.”
The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow
“I saw Zach Williams take the stage at the end of IAM Encounter 11 in New York, and expected a warm and heartening concert to close out what had been an enjoyable arts conference. But instead, when Zach and his friends got started, it may as well have been Bruce Springsteen on stage. The place came to life with a huge, soulful sound that drew back people who had been headed for the doors. And then these conference-goers who had been sitting quietly and taking notes all weekend began tumbling down the aisles toward the stage and an impromptu dance party began. There was an unmistakeable sense that the Holy Spirit was in the room. The International Arts Movement had saved the best thing for last, and we all went out into the night on a high.”
It wasn’t long after that event that I heard Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton talking about upcoming music on NPR, and Bob was raving about a new band called The Lone Bellow that were destined to become a Very Big Deal. Then he mentioned the band leader’s name, and played a track from it. I almost pulled my car over, stunned and overjoyed. It’s been exciting to see their music catch on, and it made me sick to miss their free live show at Sonic Boom Records here in Seattle. I’ve played this album so many times this year, and nothing I played in the car this year inspired me to sing louder. t’s a great jump-start-your-day album.
Here they are doing a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR’s All Songs Considered:
Richard Thompson – Electric
Producer Buddy Miller has, in my opinion, given Richard Thompson room to make his strongest solo record yet. Not a bad song in the bunch. He demonstrates such versatility, such confidence, such command — it’s like seeing a great quarterback march out, throw some signals to a team, and then power his way to a flawless game.
So many strong tracks, I don’t know where to start.
How about these?
Atoms for Peace – Amok
It storms, it spins, it rattles, it rushes, it bubbles, it boils, and it roars.
It may not have the weight of a Radiohead record, but while we’re waiting for something like that to come along, it’s a joy to hear Thom Yorke pulling together some of his favorite musical imaginations — Nigel Godrich, Flea, Joey Waronker, and Mauro Refosco — to stir up such wildly inventive noise.
This thing made heavy traffic exciting on my early morning commute… even on Monday morning, which is saying something.
And nothing I heard this year sounded better under headphones.
Arcade Fire – Reflektor
But then I changed my mind.
Let me explain: Arcade Fire celebrated the release of Reflektor by streaming the album for free, and the version they shared included a lengthy stretch of strange, dull, meandering instrumentals that, for all I knew, were a part of the album. They made it feel like an unfocused, lazy, bloated affair.
When the album actually arrived, I was delighted to find all of that forgettable filler absent. (You can find it on the CD edition, I’m told, but it’s a hidden track.) I still think they made a mistake by turning this into a double album. I love what LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy has done to bring new life to their sound. But the result feels long, uneven, and strangely top-heavy. The first disc is packed with propulsive rock anthems that seem designed to get the crowd energized. The second disc is darker, stranger, slower, and much more interesting.
But in spite of that, the band is playing with furious passion and enthusiasm, and when it comes to writing, they are fulfilling all of the promise they ever showed. While Reflektor’s music and lyrics are highly influenced by Haitian music and culture, this is an album about right here, right now.
The title song is a disco-sparkle anthem for seekers, focusing on the hard work of being lovers in a dangerous time. The lovers, driven by questions and unfulfilled longings, wander here and there looking for answers. But every bright and shining destination they choose proves disappointing — “just a reflector.” That could mean that everything proves to be reflecting light from some elusive source… or that everything has been alluring by telling them what they want to hear… showing them themselves. Either way, the song rings true.
It’s a great song for the Age of Consumerism. What do you give people who have everything but remain unsatisfied? How many times have we pinned our hopes of happiness on a person or a thing, only to find that we’re pursuing happiness from one fleeting pleasure to another, until we’re empty and defeated? ”We fell in love when I was 19,” Win Butler sings, “and now I’m starin’ at a screen.” What a sad, pathetic picture — and one that anyone can understand. We all have vices, things we turn to for instant gratification, things that are never enough. Even the church fails to quench the seekers’ thirst: “I thought you would lead me to the Resurrector / Turns out it was just a reflector.”
At the movies, it’s been a year about the black hole at the heart of consumerism. The Great Gatsby. The Wolf of Wall Street. And, directly connected to this album, Spike Jonze’s sci-fi romantic comedy Her. (Arcade Fire did the soundtrack, and the film features some music from this record.)
So it seems timely that the first disc of this project challenges an all-American idea: “the pursuit of happiness.” Fame? It can steal your soul. (“Flashbulb Eyes.”) When we make happiness and salvation something accessible only to those who fit our definitions of “normal,” we create a world governed by fear, hate, and self-interest. (“We Exist,” “Here Comes the Night Time,” “Normal Person.”) The images and definitions we’re sold as desirable end up creating destructive divisions and oppressing those who don’t measure up. I’m reminded of backs up what Sam Phillips once sang: “Our ideas of perfect are so imperfect.”
By the end of the first disc, the only honorable icon upheld is Joan of Arc, who held to her convictions and remained faithful to a higher calling even when the reigning powers felt so threatened that they burned her at the stake.
In the second disc, a vision of a higher calling becomes clearer. True love is faithful and forgiving, but it’s a hard road in a world ruled by “little boys with their porno.” Lo and behold, Orpheus — the most popular pop music figure of the last several years — shows up, striving to overcome his fears and finish the journey with his beloved through the darkness.
Wrapping up this epic with a song right out of the U2 template — “Supersymmetry” — Arcade Fire calls for full-bodied presence with one another, not the feeble connections of digital relationships that enable us to go on living in fear. This isn’t just a song about the need for face-to-face faithfulness. It also doubles as a challenge to a saint or a savior whose absence is deeply felt, whose return is desperately desired. Call it a psalm if you like — this is a familiar cry: “Why have you forsaken me?” “I know you’re alive in my mind,” sings Butler, sounding broken. “But it’s not the same as bein’ alive.” Might as well bring on Bono for an encore: “Wake up, dead man!”
Sam Phillips – Push Any Button
The album was going to be called Pretty Time Bomb (a better title, I think). But then the Boston Marathon bombing occurred, and I suspect that it just didn’t seem like good timing to release an album that used the term “time bomb” so playfully.
“Playful” is a good word for this record. But that’s a word that we might apply to any title in Sam’s relentlessly inventive repertoire. What stands out about this record for me is that it’s the first time I can use words like “happy,” “contented,” and maybe even “giddy” to describe the sounds.
Sam’s music, like the work of most great artists, is deeply intertwined with her personal history. The albums she’s released over the last 20 years have frequently reminded us of her difficult experiences with Christian fundamentalism in the 1980s, as well as her complicated relationship with her first husband T Bone Burnett.
But Push Any Button is the sound of someone leaning forward into new chapters, new visions, new hope, while refusing to give up the sounds and styles that made her who she is today. With creative genius Jay Bellerose on drums, and string arrangements by Eric Gorfain (Sam’s husband), this record is as diverse, as colorful, and as adventurous as any record she’s made. While it brings back and celebrates some sounds that we haven’t heard from her since 1992′s Cruel Inventions, it also surprises with sprightly new inventions.
Back in May, Sam wrote,
“I feel that this album is disconnected from a lot of the music people are making today, but it is connected to the music that made me start writing songs in the first place. With these songs I attempted to do a true and modern take on the pop radio inside my head.”
Hopefully this marks the beginning of a new chapter, instead of a last-act review of her high points. Sam’s never given us any reason to believe she’s tired of music, so I’m not worried. As she sings so beautifully, “There’s no time like now.”
David Bowie – The Next Day Extra
When David Bowie made a surprise return to the stage, releasing The Next Day — an album nobody knew was coming — there was a roar of applause from fans and critics. Bowie sounded like Bowie again: bold, grandiose, dark, strange, alienated, angry.
Right away I wrote,
“It is not so much a nostalgia trip as a demonstration that all of the different characters he has played over the years can coexist on one album. Its like the front cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, except that all of the colorful characters are Bowie’s own wild array of personas. And speaking of “lonely hearts,” this is an album of calamitous sadness. The suggestion is that fame and success have become a force driving Major Tom’s space capsule so far from earth that there’s no way to ever bring that poor space oddity back down to earth for the love and community and understanding that he so desires. Even he doesn’t know who he is anymore.”
I was excited about the record. But the more I listened, the more I realized that something was missing. It sounded a lot Volume Two of Heathen — an impressive effort itself — that he released more than a decade ago. Where was the sense that Bowie was still willing to break new ground, explore new sounds, try on new costumes?
Well, several months later, a special edition of the album — The Next Day Extra — arrived inexplicably… and almost silently. Which is a shame, because this edition, which contains a full second volume, is more imaginative, more playful, more musically experimental, more lyrically courageous, and for my money… much more satisfying.
I wish it had all come out as one big package to begin with. It might have made a bigger splash, reminding us more spectacularly about what Bowie has meant to music, and what he might still go on meaning.
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
For several years running, I’ve been wondering: What band will come along to wear the shoes that bands like U2 and R.E.M. wore in the late ’80s and early ’90s? By the I mean, what bands will point us outward to contemplate mysteries, and inward to explore our own hearts, without getting wrapped up in their own celebrity and self-interest? What bands will write anthems that inspire and unite generations to follow their work, album by album, for decades? It takes more than a wild imagination — it take conscience, vision, and courage.
Arcade Fire have answered that call, and they are living it out beautifully — refusing to rest on their laurels, constantly challenging themselves to try new sounds, new paths, new questions. It’s par for the course that they’ll alienate some of their audience, who would prefer for them to just keep repeating the sounds they’ve made before.
But Arcade Fire is already several albums into their journey. Does any other band look likely to accept the challenge?
I’ve enjoyed earlier efforts by Vampire Weekend, but never enough to dig in and pay close attention. This time was different. From the moment NPR’s All Songs Considered presented the song “Diane Young,” they had my full attention.
This record was inevitable — a passionate dismissal of the god, the salvation, and the afterlife that has been presented to the world by zealous Christian fundamentalists who emphasize hell over grace, judgment over love, megaphone sermonizing over tender in-person love, answers over questions, black-and-white matters over mystery, cultural condemnation over cultural engagement. They asked for it… they got it. This is the sound of their “mission field” listeners saying, “Okay, if that’s what the Gospel is about, I’m sorry, but I’ll take my chances elsewhere.”
And yet, the album never sounds mean-spirited or hateful. It sounds earnest, full of longing, and explosively imaginative. It sounds, in other words, like the fruit of of tapping into the truth… so much richer and more vibrant that what gets branded as “Christian rock.”
In Image Update, reviewer Tyler McCabe called this album Vampire Weekend’s “most thematically complex album to date.” And I agree with his entire review, which I’m reprinting here with permission:
Modern Vampires of the City … unexpectedly (and unabashedly) explores the struggle of young urban millenials to believe and disbelieve in God.
Now, before a listener registers the religious anxiety and unrest conveyed through the lyrics of these songs, the initial sonic impression is celebratory, featuring bright vocals, pert drums, and a signature precision in the layered sounds. The music is delibrately (and overwhelmingly) fun.
In “Unbelievers,” lead singer Ezra Koenig asks—with unsettling pep—questions about being damned to hell: “Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me? / I know I love you / and you love the sea / but what holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me?”
Later, in “Everlasting Arms,” he sings, “If you’d been made to serve a master / you’d be frightened by the open hand,” before launching into a flat-out worshipful chorus: “Hold me in your everlasting arms.”
In the track “Ya Hey,” which puns irreverently on Yahweh, Koenig sings, “Oh, sweet thing / Zion doesn’t love you / and Babylon don’t love you / but you love everything…. Through the fire and through the flames / you won’t even say your name. / Only ‘I am what I am.’ / But who could ever live that way?”
The narrator of these songs is at turns devotional and cynical, inspired and abandoned by God, and the way these opposing sentiments are bound together with a consistent mirth is as disorienting as the world that Americans — especially young, affluent, and isolated millenials — inhabit every day.
The last line of the album? “Take your time, young lion.” It seems that Vampire Weekend is nowhere near the end of their spiritual wrestling. For anyone who feels the same way about religion, these songs will make interesting companions.
Over the Rhine – Meet Me at the Edge of the World
Or perhaps Joe Henry, one of the finest producers in the business, knew what he was talking about. As Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler left his studio last April 6, he posted this on his Facebook page:
Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler – known collectively as Over the Rhine – blew town thursday morning, but not before making an honest-to-god double album masterpiece. i used the ‘m’ word. and you heard it here first.
Perhaps I’m just blinded by love. Perhaps I’m sentimental.
Or perhaps there’s something rather remarkable happening on this album.
And if you say, “He’s letting his personal feelings interfere with his judgment,” all I can say is this: Show me a reviewer who ignores his personal feelings about music when he writes, and I’ll show you a cerebral bore who is lying about the music that really impresses him.
I mean… I could have jumped on the runaway train of critical adulation for the new Kanye West album. Sure. Because the music is pretty amazing. But I cannot ignore the fact that the lyrics are spectacularly obscene, pornographic, repulsively arrogant, and flagrantly degrading to women. You can bake the best-looking cake in the bakery, but if you’ve pumped it full of poison, I’m backing away from that crap. If I were to ignore the fact that I feel unclean when I listen to such stuff, in order to follow trends in music criticism, well… I’d be a fraud.
We all come to music with distinct personal histories, preferences, loves, fears, questions, etc. So our experiences and personalities are an active part of our critical faculties no matter what we do. Nobody is experienced enough to call anything “The Best of 2013.” We can only share what impressed us and moved us. And nothing impressed or moved me more than this record. I’ll still be singing several of these songs when I’m 70. And I’ll keep mp3s, a CD, and a gatefold vinyl edition on hand so that I’m ready to share on any occasion.
So there you have it… the music that meant the most to me in 2013.
What music meant the most to you this year? What did I miss?